A bi-monthly update on the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)


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In this issue







From the Executive Secretary
Millions of people are currently suffering a major food crisis. As the green revolution is reaching its limits, it is time to pursue new and perhaps unconventional pathways towards food security for all. More…

Publications and videos More…

Drylands vulnerable to food crisis
For a genuine solution to food insecurity, major policy shifts are needed. The world’s drylands deserve special attention; they are particularly vulnerable to food shortages. More…

Ethiopia: MERET increases resilience 
The programme makes a stand against the negative effects of land degradation, including food insecurity.  More…

“We need a brown revolution”
Allan Savory advocates abandoning the common practice of resting drylands for them to recover and prevent desertification. Land degradation can be reversed by running large herds of livestock on the land. More…

Qatar: Towards self-sufficiency
Qatar is pursuing an ambitious food security programme focusing on agricultural development, water management and desalination, renewable energies and food processing. This oil-rich country is emerging as a dedicated advocate of the world’s drylands. More…


Thinking out of the box

Food production depends on healthy soil and water. Thus, securing the Earth’s ability to provide food is one of the UNCCD’s greatest motivations and objectives in combating land degradation. However, we face the tremendous challenge of continuously growing populations that demand to be fed - regardless of the limits of our soil and water supplies. To expect the one billion hungry people in the world to exploit the Earth’s soil in a circumspect and thoughtful way, is a “big ask”. Wouldn’t we all try to squeeze every last drop of goodness from the soil to survive? Almost any means would seem to justify this end - including tapping non-renewable water resources or depleting soils. But despite the urgent need to address the current food crisis, let us not lose sight of the other populations that are not that seriously affected by hunger and that also heavily exploit our natural resources. This entire situation calls for new solutions, for the green revolution has reached its limits.

On 11 June, the UNCCD organised the Land Day 4 event, which focused on land resources and climate change. Land is one of the most crucial factors for food security: This is where our crops grow; this is where our livestock is raised. Speakers at Land Day pointed out that the entire food system needs major organisational restructuring and innovation. However, I completely agree that pursuing technological innovation and technology transfer alone will not solve the problem. Instead, we should envisage sustainable system innovations at the scale of the ecosystem rather than merely improving varieties.

The keynote speech at Land Day 4 was given by Allan Savory, a lateral thinker from Zimbabwe. He spoke about the role of large animal numbers as a way to combat desertification. When he explained that animals break the surface, compact the land and return plant material into the soil and thus help the land to recover, I was stunned by his remarkable reasoning based on his holistic land management approach. Allan’s experience with this method seriously challenges the common belief that in regions with only seasonal rainfall, more people and more animals imply overgrazing, less trees and therefore desertification. Find out more about his thinking in the interview with Allan Savory in this issue of UNCCD News.

The new green revolution is likely to be a “brown revolution” through holistic management as Allan Savory rightfully coined the imperative of moving from an input-intensive agriculture to a knowledge-intensive one. So I advocate a “brown revolution” combined with a green economy, where the knowledge that fuels food production in the green economy is deployed to improve means and ends. The challenge of realising global food security by 2050 therefore lies in policy design, which must aim to increase food production through improved methods while leaving no trace of a land degradation footprint behind.

However, for me, two questions remain: Firstly, how can sustainable holistic land management be driven forward and what kind of governance is needed for it? In many places, we can already find examples which demonstrate the feasibility of this approach to land management also under difficult ecologic and socio-economic conditions. We need to analyse these best practices and the reasons for their success in order to make use of these experiences at a broader level. Secondly, will the business sector continue to invest millions of dollars in land management practices that do not sustain? The UNCCD's COP10 in the Republic of Korea in October 2011 will be an avenue for policy-makers to answer these questions and to envisage new and promising pathways that today are still perceived as “thinking out of the box”.

Luc Gnacadja
Executive Secretary


“I advocate a ‘brown revolution’ combined with a green economy.”


Drylands vulnerable to food crisis

Famine hits the Horn of Africa every few years. Now it is back again, causing human suffering on a massive scale. The pressure to act is high. Millions of people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are now dependent on emergency aid for their survival. They are facing a severe drought, with too little water and food to satisfy their basic needs. To make matters worse, food prices are soaring: in Mogadishu, red sorghum now costs 150 per cent more than 12 months ago. The international community, with the United Nations leading the way, has now launched large-scale humanitarian relief operations to alleviate the suffering. 

In the coming weeks and months, coping with the drought’s brutal consequences and meeting the basic nutritional needs of millions of people in the Horn of Africa will be the priority. However, for a genuine solution to food insecurity on a global scale, major long-term policy shifts are needed. Policy-makers face a highly complex situation and competing interests, with investment bankers speculating on international markets, food-importing countries outsourcing their agricultural production abroad, and small-scale farmers practising subsistence agriculture with sub-optimal farming techniques. Today’s challenges therefore include a broad range of issues: from price volatility, adaptation to climate change, biofuel production, agricultural efficiency, crop variety and land tenure.

Policy-makers face a highly complex situation and competing interests.

Major policy shifts are needed

The international community has acknowledged the need to prevent future crises far worse than today’s humanitarian disasters, and, over recent years, has put food security back at the top of its agenda. At its summit in France in May 2011, the G8, for instance, presented the Deauville Accountability Report, which advocates a common approach to improving food security:

  • - investing in country-owned plans,
  • - fostering strategic coordination at national, regional and global level,
  • - striving for a comprehensive approach,
  • - ensuring a strong role for the multilateral system and
  • - ensuring a sustained and substantial commitment to invest in agriculture,
    food security and nutrition.

The report further acknowledges that “addressing the root causes of food insecurity is a mid-term and long-term challenge that necessitates improving donor coordination, and supporting national and regional-led processes.”

UNCCD has provided input for the G8 Summit from its special drylands perspective. “Most least developed countries, especially in Africa, are drylands countries whose economies rely heavily on a climate-sensitive agricultural sector that, on average, employs 70 per cent of the population. And as the land, which is their main – if not only – capital gets depleted, they are entrenched further into poverty. Land degradation is a particularly knotty policy issue, because it is both a cause and a consequence of poverty,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja with reference to the G8 Summit.

Because desertification, drought and food shortages are so closely interlinked, UNCCD plays a key role in addressing food insecurity in the world’s drylands. Indeed, UNCCD’s existence can be traced back to the Great Sahel drought in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The drought’s severity was the major inducement for the founding of the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) in 1977, which adopted a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (PACD) and served as a UNCCD predecessor.

Unlimited population growth, limited land

Whereas land, with its agricultural productivity, is a limited resource, there are no limits to human reproduction rates. It’s simple arithmetic: based on the world’s current food needs, global food production will have to increase by 70 per cent to feed a projected 9 billion people by 2050.

According to the Foresight Institute, the world population today has only 8 per cent more land at its disposal for agriculture than 40 years ago. There is no prospect of a significant increase in the amount of farmland that will become available. On the contrary, more land will be lost to urbanisation, salinisation, sea-level rise and desertification. Already, 20 per cent of the land surface has been strongly degraded due to overexploitation, overgrazing, and inappropriate clearing techniques and land use practices.

Around 1.5 billion of the world’s people are directly dependent on degrading land. Their food production options are limited and many have no choice but to farm on marginal lands with low productivity. According to the recently published policy paper ‘The Economics of Desertification, Land Degradation, and Drought’, a “decrease in productivity caused by land degradation also indirectly affects food security.” The paper, prepared by the Center for Development Research (ZEF) on the initiatives of UNCCD and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), explains that “as land degradation decreases the natural productivity of the soil, it has the potential to decrease production, or at least to increase production costs. These two effects, in turn, raise food prices and increase food insecurity and poverty.”

Reduced land productivity leads to food insecurity.

Food security in the drylands

The world’s drylands are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. About 44 per cent of the world’s food – grain and livestock – is produced in dryland areas. Their characteristics make agricultural production more challenging than in more humid regions. Apart from water scarcity, they are especially vulnerable to soil erosion, biodiversity loss and salinisation and, as a consequence, reduced yields. The United Nations is committed to increasing food production in the world’s drylands not despite, but because of the challenging and worsening environmental and climate constraints. “The world’s food production system is under stress, but the critical links between land degradation, food insecurity, political instability and migration are often overlooked,” says Gnacadja.

The challenges of desertification and food insecurity have many common factors, not only in terms of their numerous biophysical, political and socio-economic drivers and linkages with the productivity of the land and soil, but also in the discourses and approaches that have informed their management, explains Lindsay Stringer, Co-Director of the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds. But there are many possible ways of addressing this issue. “Changes to land management can improve the quality of natural capital, for example, through the implementation of soil and water conservation measures leading to improved water use efficiency and productivity,” says Stringer, who has explored the links between desertification and food insecurity.

Land degradation is both a cause and an effect of food insecurity.

Too often, technological advances do not take the special conditions in the world’s drylands into account as they tend to focus more on mainstream agriculture in the developed world. However, no one has as much knowledge of fostering food and nutrition security in the drylands as the population itself at the household level. Smallholder farmers and pastoralists are therefore important contributors to food security, and policy incentives should enable them to achieve long-term food sovereignty, restore and safeguard the quality and productivity of land, and stimulate long-term economic development.

Policy must focus on small-scale farmers.

Only addressing the local level would be too short-sighted, however. “Technological innovations are most effective if embedded in the context of comprehensive national food security strategies that address agricultural production as well as access to markets, infrastructure development, environmental sustainability, and social protection,” notes UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. And what about the global scale? “There is an urgent need to regulate the food and agricultural markets. Incentive frameworks must attract private investments that support the prevention of land degradation and the recovery of degraded land,” according to Gnacadja. The prospects of a green economy will also benefit the soils’ health and food productivity.

Although the world’s attention is mainly focused on the famine in Africa at present, food insecurity is a global problem with severe consequences. In 2010, for instance, high food prices kept almost 20 million people in the Asia-Pacific region impoverished, who would otherwise have had a good chance of lifting themselves out of poverty. Food insecurity has countless facets, but the close link between desertification and food security and the drylands’ particular vulnerability to falling into the hunger trap must be given the attention they deserve.


Ethiopia: WFP improves resilience to drought

Consigning the tragedy of hunger in the Horn of Africa to history once and for all - a joint venture between the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Ethiopian Government has successfully taken steps towards achieving this ambitious goal. It makes a stand against the effects of drought and land degradation with long-term investments in environmental rehabilitation, sustainable income-generating activities and improved livelihoods.

Not only in times of drought, food security is a sensitive issue in Ethiopia, where 41 per cent of its population of 85 million suffers from undernourishment according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The Ethiopian people face countless hardships associated with severe poverty. The country is ranked 157 out of 169 in the UNDP Human Development Index.

However, Ethiopia has recently made considerable progress, for instance, in primary school enrolment, rural road investment and health extension systems. Part of this good news is the MERET programme run by the WFP and the Ethiopian Government, which aims to improve food security. 

MERET, meaning “land“ in the local language Amharic, also stands for “Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to More Sustainable Livelihoods“. The programme undertakes various activities to support chronically food-insecure communities. For instance, such activities include reforesting barren hillsides, restoring springs and ponds, and rebuilding and refurbishing agricultural terraces. The programme is set up as a food for work scheme, in which participants receive three kilos of wheat per workday for up to three months. Their activities are essential for food security in an environment with challenging rainfall patterns, severe land degradation and a high population density.  

The programme’s outreach is impressive. Since 2000, participants have constructed more than 8,500 watersheds and have planted and grown 400 million tree seedlings. Every single terrace built makes a big difference to the farmers, who can now grow grains, fruits and vegetables where before, the rain had washed away all the good topsoil. 

The World Food Programme has reported many MERET success stories. Gonkullu Letu, a farmer in the village of Goro Wagilo, is just one example: over a period of several years, he and his neighbours dug ditches, built dams, and terraced hillsides. As a result, his farm became a thriving family business which even withstood the droughts in 2008 and 2009 without any major setbacks.  

A WFP website article headline from November 2010 reads: “Ethiopian growers turn barren land into booming farms.” This might sound improbable today, but it still points to the right direction – even in times of severe drought. MERET increases people’s resilience to drought and other climate-induced risks. It is not a panacea, but it has shown that holistic approaches to food-security can improve the lives of thousands of food-insecure people. 


“Ethiopia has rewritten the book on successful climate adaptation with the MERET programme.”

Josette Sheeran, WFP Executive Director

"Ethiopia has a long history of widespread land degradation in all regions and recurring droughts. Together, these constitute one of the most serious problems facing the country’s agriculture, particularly in the highlands where most agricultural production takes place. More than 85 per cent of the land is moderately to very severely degraded. [...] All forms of land degradation occur in Ethiopia: water and wind erosion; salinisation; alkalinisation; and both physical and biological degradation of soils.

Statistics on the subject are staggering:

  • - loss of 30 000 ha a year due to water erosion, and more than 2 million ha severely damaged;
  • - annual nutrient losses of 30 kg/ha of nitrogen and 15-20 kg/ha of phosphorus;
  • - loss of 62,000 ha of forest/woodland a year;
  • - loss of 4,000 ha of state farms (2004) to salinisation."

Source: The Global Mechanism, Country Factsheet Ethiopia


We need a brown revolution

Allan Savory pursued an early career as a research biologist, game ranger, soldier, politician and international consultant in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Exiled in 1979, he co-founded the non-profit Center for Holistic Management in 1984 and in 2009 the Savory Institute with his wife Jody Butterfield and colleagues in the United States. In 1992, they formed a second non-profit (social welfare) organisation, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, donating a ranch that would serve as a learning site for people all over Africa.

In 2003, Savory was awarded the Banksia International Award for the person doing the most for the environment on a global scale. His current work in Africa is receiving much praise and recognition and the Africa Centre for Holistic Management won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for the organisation providing the most comprehensive solution to a pressing global problem.

Savory gave the keynote speech at this year’s UNCCD Land Day in Bonn on 11 June, where he spoke with UNCCD News editor Susanne Reiff.


“I have never seen overstocked land in Africa.”

Food security: the top issue is biodiversity

Today, we are producing more eroding soil than food. I think that is probably the most frightening statistic in the world. When we destroy soil, a vast amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere. Food security is impossible while this problem exists.

To achieve food security and human security, we need to focus on the degradation taking place in all environments. Every environment in the world is now degrading to some extent. Fish stocks have been destroyed and coral reefs are being destroyed, but we can find solutions to these problems through our conventional thinking. If these environments rest, they will recover. If overfishing stops, even if the world’s entire cod stocks have been depleted, the sea will recover, given time. The same applies to the world’s humid environments. But in areas of the world with only seasonal rain and in arid regions, biodiversity loss needs to be stopped as a matter of urgency, and current thinking changed. Biodiversity is not only about charismatic species. It is about humble soil-covering litter, soil microorganisms and many other factors. For food security, biodiversity is the top issue.  

When addressing food security, most people limit their view to the croplands. However, we also need to focus on stabilising all the catchment areas. Rainfall has to be effective – it needs to soak in the soil and stay there, rather than evaporate or run off. We cannot rely on irrigation or agroforestry alone for sustainability. They create oases in an expanding desert.

“Overgrazing is a time problem, not an animal numbers problem.”

Only litter can cover the bulk of the soil

We are used to treating desertification as a problem in itself, but it is actually a symptom of a much wider issue, namely biodiversity loss. Biodiversity is the mass or volume of life and diversity of species. If no biodiversity is lost, desertification simply does not occur. So biodiversity is the key factor. Fossil fuels make the situation more complex. In effect, they are the biodiversity of the past which we are burning up today.  

The biodiversity loss which leads to desertification starts with litter - dead leaf material or plants stomped down by large herbivores, today largely livestock. Strangely, I never hear people mention this topic in the biodiversity debate. But litter provides most of the soil cover throughout the world. In grasslands, it is the bare space between individual plants that matters, and that needs to be covered by litter, which large herbivores can help to create. This litter ensures that more water penetrates and is retained. It also moderates the temperature at the soil surface, which in turn enables soil organisms to thrive.

Allan Savory: “Mainstream land management operates on three deep myths”

Myth 1: Overgrazing is due to too many animals.
You cannot overgraze land; only plants can be grazed or overgrazed. Overgrazing is a function of time, and involves the length of exposure and re-exposure of the plants to grazing animals, not the animal numbers. Although this was recognised as sound science 60 years ago, it has still not been accepted by any institution – ranching or farming organisations, environmental organisations, universities, government or international agencies.

Myth 2: Rest restores the environment and biodiversity.
The widespread belief is that the environment recovers if rested. That holds true for oceans, lakes and regions that are perennially humid. But where the rainfall is seasonal with long dry periods, this assumption is no longer valid. Indeed, it can actually become destructive. Instead, a high level of disturbance every now and then is needed – and that’s where large animal numbers come in.

Myth 3: Fire is essential for the health of grasslands.
Thousands of years ago, humans observed that the grasslands were declining due to excessive moribund plant material forming annually after most herding herbivores were killed off and replaced with fewer livestock. They began burning to refresh the grasslands. However, fire cannot replace the rapid biological decay that was previously facilitated by large herbivore populations. Fire is simply rapid oxidation; it exposes soils while producing large quantities of greenhouse gases.

Maintaining the cycle of life

Looking at the life cycle in the perennially humid environments, plants or animals can die at any time of the year. When this occurs, the process of decay is rapid and biological and the cycle of life goes on. Even where people have greatly damaged these environments and abandoned their cities, we find the ruins under recovered jungle.

But what about the rest of the world, the two thirds of the world with seasonal rainfall and very dry seasons? During the wet period, tremendous growth of billions of tonnes of vegetation and microorganisms takes place. But soon after the rains stop, the soil and the atmosphere dry out. At this point, above-ground plant life dies out on a massive scale. This happens every year. In the absence of large herbivores and disturbance, biological decay is replaced by chemical oxidation and physical weathering of this mass of dead material. This leads to the early death of animal-dependent perennial grasses and the development of bare soil – in other words, desertification.

But how can we support the process of decay? It has to be biological. This is where large herbivores come in. Before most of them were killed off by humans and replaced with fewer domestic animals, much of the biological breakdown occurred in the moist gut of those billions of animals, which unlike the soil and atmosphere did not dry off. We have replaced those billions of animals with fire. Animal-maintained grasslands largely became fire-maintained grasslands.

False causes of desertification

In Africa, the causes of desertification seem to be clear. At this point, it is worth looking at a different region with a similar climate which pursues a different approach. In West Texas, USA, land managers apply very different practices from those used and blamed for desertification in Africa, for instance:

  • - a very low and falling population;
  • - more than a hundred years of destocking, hardly any animals on the land,
    but hundreds of thousands of animals in feedlots;
  • - private ownership of the land; and
  • - great wealth, as well as direct access to capital, good universities,
    extension services, etc.

If we scientists are correct in our belief that overpopulation, overstocking with livestock, communal tenure of land, etc. are the causes of desertification in Africa, then West Texas should generate thriving rural populations, flowing rivers and an abundance of fish and wildlife. However, this is not the case. Small towns are totally deserted, sand dunes are forming, rivers are running dry with occasional flash flooding and there are now more people in jails than living on farms.

So why is mainstream opinion apparently so misguided? Much of the grassland in Texas, which is classified as good range conditions and apparently healthy, is desertifying on a large scale. Most of the ground is bare, eroding and evaporating moisture, causing droughts and floods.

Efforts have been made to address desertification in many different ways. For instance, people have reduced or removed livestock, planted grass and trees, developed machinery to disturb and cover soil with litter, and irrigated the land. But no amount of money spent on technology has ever resulted in more than localised and superficial success; instead, desertification has continued to advance. Planting grass and trees would appear to be the most sensible approach, but even this cannot reverse desertification. There are two reasons for this: planting grass fails, as the United States has demonstrated over vast areas at high cost, because it does not address the factors which caused the original vegetation to die out. Tree planting is not successful in the long run, because in most of the advancing deserts, there is not enough rainfall to allow the trees to produce sufficient litter and thus provide adequate soil cover. Only in those limited areas where rainfall is high enough will tree planting lead to soil cover.

Only livestock can reverse desertification

My answer to this situation is this: only livestock can reverse desertification. However, we have to manage them differently than we have as pastoralists over thousands of years, or more recently as ranchers or farmers using various rotational and other grazing systems.

We developed the idea of holistically managed grazing in the 1960s. In this process, grazing was planned continuously using a 300-year-old military planning process adapted to livestock, wildlife, rangelands and complexity. This enabled us to run large numbers of animals without overgrazing plants and without creating conflicts with wildlife, crops or other land uses. That led to immediate and truly amazing results. We have even found open water and springs returning as the rainfall becomes effective once more. This has been due to a great increase in livestock numbers, but grazing properly, to mimic nature of old.


Today, practitioners in countries such as Canada, Mexico, the United States, South America, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Africa manage at least 40 million acres of land holistically. But it is not enough to assist people to reverse land degradation at the local level. The policies in place need to empower them in a wider sense. We should not be forcing harmful climate-changing practices on farmers and pastoralists, which is what has happened in Australia and the United States.

So far, however, we have not managed to convince most governments and international agencies that our approach is the right one. I have encountered all the usual stalling and institutional resistance, but this is inevitable and is the normal response, at least at first, to anyone who comes up with new thinking.

The Savory Institute has trained a number of educators and associate consultants all over the world, in countries such as Namibia, Kenya, the United States, Mexico and Australia, where they are now spreading the word about holistic land management. On learning sites, government officials, practitioners and scientists can experience the effects of managing land in a holistic way.

The United States Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has awarded the Africa Centre for Holistic Management 4.8 million dollars to enhance water and food security and restore degraded catchments in Southern Africa. Using holistic management, the Centre is developing effective community mobilising methodologies for successful implementation of land restoration through livestock programmes.

The Savory Institute is partnered with the Capital Institute in New York, which explores and effects economic transition to a more just, resilient and sustainable way of living through the transformation of finance. As part of this partnership, the Savory Institute buys land in the United States and manages it holistically. The investors’ return has been much better than most other green investments. In the first year it was 6 per cent, whereas a 3 per cent return is generally considered very good.

“There have been too few animals for too long on the land.”


When it comes to solving the world’s most pressing problems, it is not money that we are short of: it is time that is at a premium. We face a situation of ongoing desertification, climate change and biodiversity loss. To promote our new scientific insights and the fact that livestock offers the only solution to desertification and its contribution to climate change, we must act fast to raise awareness of the holistic framework at the international level. If a responsible body, the UN or a national government, were to initiate a debate about the holistic framework, the process could gather speed.

I firmly believe that we do not need a green revolution. Instead, we should be focusing on the soil. We need a brown revolution based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food. This – not adaptation – is the key to reversing desertification and climate change.

In Allan Savory’s holistic world view, climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification are not perceived as three distinct problems. Instead, biodiversity loss is considered to cause desertification and climate change, which in turn has been exacerbated by fossil fuels.

It was Jan Christian Smuts back in the 1920s, who provided the theory for the holistic approach. He warned that scientists would never understand nature until they understood that nature only functions in wholes and patterns. There were no interconnections; no parts, which for him were mechanical concepts.

Allan Savory identifies one common denominator of desertification in past civilisations as well as in developed and undeveloped countries. Neither the level of culture, nor education, greed or livestock is considered to trigger desertification. Instead, the root cause is seen in the decisions of human beings. They take decisions in countless different ways: dictatorially, democratically or scientifically; based on past experience, intuition or expert advice – but always using the same core framework. Holistic approaches argue that this core framework is unbelievably successful with everything that people “make” involving technology. However, for those aspects of civilisation which concern what people “manage” – agriculture, forests, oceans, economies or governance – the framework reaches its limits in the view of holistic thinking.

“We are tool-using animals and we are unable to use our labour, money or creativity other than through some sort of tool. Over the last million years, we have only developed three major tools to manage our environment at large,” Allan Savory explains. Those tools are technology, fire and rest (non-disturbance).

What tools are available to combat desertification? In holistic thinking, technology is not an option, because it cannot replace biological decay of massive annually-dying, above-ground grass parts on two thirds of the Earth’s land. Fire exposes soil and it causes rapid oxidation, which releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Resting land in seasonal rainfall environments contributes to oxidation, dying plants, bare soil, desertification and climate change over almost two thirds of Earth’s land area. Therefore, according to Allan Savory’s holistic approach, only one option remains in people’s core framework and that is to bring in livestock as a tool to reverse desertification.


Towards self-sufficiency: Qatar pursues ambitious food security programme

On the eve of the special United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on “addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”, to be held on 20 September in New York, UNCCD together with the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) will host a special event to found the Global Drylands Land Alliance. Back in 2010, Qatar organised a side event on the occasion of the General Assembly meeting on the Millennium Development Goals. The country is thus emerging as a dedicated advocate for the world’s drylands.

Closely connected with Qatar’s commitment to the global drylands is its pledge to meet 70 per cent of its food needs itself by 2023. “We established the Qatar National Food Security Programme in 2008, which aims to reduce Qatar’s reliance on food imports through the realisation of the principle of self-sufficiency,” says His Highness the Emir of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

This is, without doubt, an ambitious goal, considering that in 2008, Qatar was still meeting 90 per cent of its 1.6 million citizens’ food requirements through imports. Unsurprisingly, the agricultural trade deficit totalled more than one billion US dollars in the same year.

The most important cause of this food deficit lies in Qatar’s extreme water scarcity, with average annual precipitation of only 987.4 litres per square metre (in comparison, the figure for Sudan is around 28,000 litres).

According to the Atlas of Soils for the State of Qatar, around 70,000 ha of the land (5.7 per cent) is arable. However, in 2008, less than 20 per cent of this area was cultivated.

Qatar’s National Food Security Programme is meant to increase domestic food production with scientific and technological development in four areas:

  • - Water management and desalination technologies;
  • - Renewable energy with a special focus on solar energy and
    the establishment of a solar park;
  • - Agricultural development, including the adoption of technologies such as
    hydroponics and water-efficient techniques such as drip irrigation;
  • - Food processing through the establishment of an Agro-Industrial Park.

Water: large-scale desalination

Having realised that its groundwater is a precious and non-renewable resource, Qatar has committed itself to resist the temptation to continuously tap groundwater. Today, the country’s agriculture still uses groundwater aquifers, but this practice will soon be replaced by seawater desalination.

The Government of Qatar also plans to recharge the aquifers with desalinated water, which will then serve as reservoirs enhancing Qatar’s water security. Traditionally, desalination plants are run on oil or natural gas. But since this is neither economically sound nor sustainable, Qatar has included renewable energies in its Food Security Programme in order to provide green power to run its desalination facilities

The country heavily depends on seawater desalination, which provides 99 percent of Qatar’s drinking water. The latest advances in reverse osmosis (RO) and solar desalination technologies are planned to meet most of Qatar’s agricultural water needs, according to the QNFSP. The power needed to run the RO systems is expected to originate from a solar park that is planned in the south of the country. By making use of industrial cooling water and the re-use of industrial waste heat, the country also intends to optimise its desalination potential.

In May 2011, a combined desalination and power facility was officially opened, which will push Qatar’s water strategy forward. It has the capacity to produce 286,000 m3 of water per day and 2,730 MW of power.

Agriculture: boosting productivity

The problems facing agriculture in Qatar go beyond irrigation water scarcity, the poor quality of the soils, and adverse climatic conditions. The QNFSP has also identified traditional irrigation methods such as flood irrigation, a lack of seasonal employment at appropriate times, and the use of the fallow system as the major contributory factors to large areas of land within the farms being kept out of cultivation. New technologies and farming techniques are envisaged to increase crop yields. It is one of the QNFSP’s key strategies to deploy water-use efficient crop production technologies such as protected and controlled environment production and hydroponics as well as advanced irrigation systems. Furthermore, the QNFSP says that it “will take the necessary measures to optimise its irrigation and agricultural operations, as well as promote national water management”.

All four pillars of Qatar’s food security strategy demand comprehensive research. Qatar is thus partnered with several universities and US state agencies, including the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) and the US state of Oregon and its universities, in order to develop new technologies in response to the massive challenges posed by the project.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, has abandoned the goal of self-sufficiency, which after more than two decades turned out to be too costly. Elie Elhadj, a researcher on Middle Eastern issues, concluded in a study on the Saudi Arabia’s desert agriculture back in 1994: “This experiment simply showed that a combination of money and water could make even a desert bloom, until either the money or the water runs out.” Now, Saudi Arabia is embarking on large-scale land acquisition in Asia and Africa, for example. Food for the Saudi population will be grown abroad and shipped to Saudi Arabia. However, such practices are increasingly being criticised as land-grabbing (see UNCCD News 2.5).

At least with regard to water scarcity, the situation in Qatar is comparable to that in Saudi Arabia. But Qatar, being much smaller in size and with a population of less than two million, is very positive about its food security policy.

“The programme will not only develop the recommendations for food security policy, but will also join regional and international organisations and non-governmental organisations to develop research and studies for best practices and optimal use of resources in the agricultural sector,” explains His Highness the Emir of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

“Applying the latest technology to cultivate dry land will hold the key to improving Qatar’s food security.”

Fahad Bin Mohammed Al-Attiya, QNFSP Chairman



Desertification: a visual synthesis

This basic information kit tells “the story” of desertification, land degradation and drought at the global scale, together with a comprehensive set of graphics. The book indicates trends over the last decades, combining and connecting issues, and present priorities. It also provides information on the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and how it works to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.
Download book in PDF

Economics of desertification, land degradation and drought: toward an integrated global assessment

This policy paper was prepared as part of the ongoing multi-stakeholder initiative to evaluate the socioeconomic and ecologic costs of land degradation and the added value of better land management. As land degradation, desertification and drought worsen in various parts of the world, scientific evaluation of costs of action versus inaction has become extremely important.
Download policy paper in PDF

Food security

An overview, how governments, organisations and business are addressing the major food security issues affecting us today.
Download the 96-page PDF

OECD: Towards green growth

This strategy provides a practical framework for governments in developed and developing countries to seize opportunities that arise when the economy and the environment work together.
OECD Towards green growth website

Video & Film

Video: “Forests Keep Drylands Working” for the World Day to Combat Desertification

Environment film director John Liu (Hope in a changing climate) has created a 12-minute film on the occasion of the World Day to Combat Desertification, which was observed this year with the slogan “Forests keep drylands working”.
Watch the video on www.unccd.int 

Film: The man who stopped the desert

This full HD, one hour feature documentary tells the story of Yacouba Sawadogo, an illiterate peasant farmer in Burkina Faso who revived and adapted an ancient farming technique and began to grow crops successfully on previously abandoned land. Yacouba Sawadogo has transformed the lives of thousands of people across the Sahel.
Film website with 4-minute trailer and purchase option


About the UNCCD

Developed as a result of the Rio Summit, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a unique instrument that has brought attention to the land degradation affecting some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems in the world. The UNCCD has 194 Parties (193 countries plus the European Union) and is one of the three so-called "Rio Conventions", along with the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). The UNCCD is increasingly recognised as an instrument that can make an important contribution to the achievement of sustainable development and poverty reduction.

For more information: Awareness Raising, Communication and Education Unit, UNCCD
Tel (switchboard): + 49 228 815 2800   Fax: + 49 228 815 2898   secretariat@unccd.int

Contact UNCCD News at newsbox@unccd.int


UNCCD News is published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Editor: Susanne Reiff, to the point communication (Email)
Design: Rebus, Paris (Email)
Copyright 2011 UNCCD (Email)

Photo credits: Contents: WFP/Judith Schuler (2x), Africa Centre for Holistic Management, Paulcowan/Dreamstime.com; Message ES: UNCCD; Policy: WFP/Judith Schuler, Ferdinandreus/dreamstime.com, WFP/Waswa Moses; MERET Ethiopia: WFP/Judith Schuler; Interview: CJ Hadley/Range Magazine, Africa Centre for Holistic Management; Qatar: Embassy of the State of Qatar in Washington D.C., Paulcowan/Dreamstime.com, Calyx22/Dreamstime.com; Browsing: Heike Löffler/fotolia.com.

Any publication and videos included, and/or opinions expressed in the UNCCD News do not necessarily reflect the views of the UNCCD secretariat, but remain solely those of the author(s). Such publications, videos and/or opinions have been included only for ease of reference and academic purposes. Any information that may be referenced in the UNCCD News through provided links is not subject to the influence of the UNCCD secretariat. The UNCCD secretariat provides no warranty or approval whatsoever for users and third-party websites. It is understood that the terms of use of the UNCCD secretariat’s website apply, mutatis mutandi, to the UNCCD News.